What do you remember when you think of your parents?
You'd likely think about this question for a bit in person, and then construct a version of reality that you're comfortable with sharing and is fair to them. The story we tell people about our past is an artificial construction of feelings and events, something that tells a story we want to tell. It's part of how we present ourselves to the world.
But the first few memories and feelings that flicked through your head, like a projector on overload, that's the reality of the situation. You may love your parents. You may despise them. Most of us exist somewhere in the middle, but that feeling likely boils down to a dozen or so moments you carry with you. The "core memories," as Inside Out put it.
Those few moments and emotions that boil directly to the surface when you consider your mother, father or caregiver are part of your internal picture of them as people, and how much you do, or don't, care about them.
I worry about that second-long flash constantly.
What it's like being a parent
When people ask me what it's like to be part of a big family — and with five children, I have a pretty big family — I tell them that you just kind of deal with it. You do everything you need to because there's no other choice. It's not a good or bad thing, it just is. It informs my reality so completely I can't imagine life any other way.
But I worry about spending enough time with each child. I worry about this one's grades, or that one's health. You learn to cook food cafeteria-style, and how to make a quick spot check for missing people every minute or so when you're out in the world.
I didn't have much of a father figure growing up, and I care deeply about what my children think of me. When I get too angry and yell, I know it makes an impression. When my oldest son repeats bad parenting habits I have with the younger kids, I wince. Everyone in the house curses, and I know that's because I tend to have a potty mouth.
It all adds up. Every interaction is collected somewhere deep inside them. This fact is always in the front of my mind, and the best way to explain it is to remember those scenes in Telltale's adventure games where you make a decision and that horrible text flashes on the screen that says, "So-and-so will remember that."
It's a flat, declarative statement, but it always feels like a threat. It sits on your chest like a judgment. You don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but they're going to remember. It's the mental equivalent of the sound old computers make when something is written to media.
You hope that the bad stuff fades away and the good stuff sticks, or at least that they equal out. Taking a day off work to ride roller coasters? "Your kid will remember that." The time you lost patience and yelled because in the time it takes you to use the bathroom all the food somehow ended up on the wall? "Your kid will remember that."
I grew up Catholic, and I was taught at a young age that every nice thing you did earned a checkmark on your soul, and every mean thing you did earned you an "X" on your soul. When you died God would count the marks and as long as there were more checks than X's you would go to heaven.
If your soul was weighted the wrong way, you would go to hell. You could confess away some of the bad stuff, but you better mean it; you were given no free rides if you did so just to get to heaven. You had to mean it, and be honestly sorry.
This is a strange sentence to write, but Telltale Games and religion have equally gamified my spiritual life and relationships with my kids. I know this is an artificial, if not damaging, way to think of relationships. But I can't shake it.
When I rock a baby to sleep through the night because they have a fever, I hope some part of them will remember. When I miss an important date for a work trip, I hope it doesn't congeal into a trend that I was never there. "She will remember this," I think, when I kiss a scraped knee or comfort a crying child. "He will remember this," I fear, when E3 season means I'm working 12-hour days. When something goes very wrong or very right, you can see it on their faces sometimes. "They will remember this."
But we're all just guessing. You never know which memory will fade in a day or two and which ones they'll carry with them. Life doesn't give you floating text to let you know when these memories are created.
You create a similar movie of your children in your head, and you have very little control over it. I remember their births and I remember hundreds of moments, but that still leaves years of blank spaces punctuated by a few memories here and there. The routine dulls what you remember, and that means most of their childhood will be lost to the darker areas of your brain.
So I worry about their mental movie of me, and I try to keep as much of their lives inside me as I possibly can. I worry that negative memories stick, and I fear that love will turn to resentment or disgust as they grow older. I pray the good moments have as much staying power. And when they're babies and we're rocking back and forth, alone in the living room, listening to R.E.M. and Leonard Cohen as they fall asleep and everything is quiet and my heart is so full it may burst, I repeat it like a prayer:
I will remember this. I will remember this. I will remember this.